Civility in a Time of Social Unrest
Written by Tom Griscom, long-time aid and advisor to Senator Howard Baker
Former Governor Phil Bredesen spoke at a 2015 civility forum sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association: “We have had periods in the past that were very uncivil. I think of it more of a symptom of something else in society. What is it about American society today that people are frustrated with? I sense that people’s needs aren’t being met.”
Over time, many people have stated that one voice, one person, committed to a core set of values and principles, can make a difference. The test of time is what is behind the words and their application so that when we come together, the collective of people will drive change.
Tennessee Senator Howard Baker made a career of understanding human nature, the appreciation of the hearts, the minds, the frailties, and the strengths that form the character of a country and its people. Before he was elected to public office, Sen. Baker raised the term civility – a willingness to listen, to respect others, to share ideas with those who adamantly are opposed, and to search for common ground. Civility was defined by more than a single word.
For him, civility was expressed with a genuine, decent respect for differing viewpoints. It was telling the truth whether it is required or not because it is the currency each of us owns and through one’s actions, others are encouraged to do likewise. Today he would probably add another point: applying greater awareness to live, learn, and work in a diverse, global marketplace of ideas, cultures, and opportunities.
While many have heard his consistent encouragement of civility, do we understand his meaning and application of the word?
His approach to finding common ground to resolve issues flowed from the character of his family. His father, Howard H. Baker Sr., served in Congress and refused to sign “the Southern Manifesto of 1956” that called for rejecting the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Sen. Baker came to the Senate in 1967 at a time of social unrest in America and in our cities – the civil rights movement – and political turmoil – the Vietnam War. There are few today who fully understand his call for civility was grounded in 18 years that encouraged expressions of passionate feelings on great issues – civil rights, Vietnam, environmental protection, Watergate, the Panama Canal, economic policy, and foreign policy.
He shared these thoughts in a Senate lecture series: “No sooner had the final word been spoken and the last vote taken than I would usually walk to the desk of my most recent antagonist, extend a hand of friendship, and solicit his support on the next issue for the following day. It is as important as anything that happens in Washington or in the country we serve, for that matter. It signifies that, as Lincoln said, ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’”
When elected to the United States Senate from Tennessee, one of his first legislative actions pitted him against his father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader. The Congress was debating whether to keep the U.S. Supreme Court out of the legislative redistricting decision. The one-man, one-vote decision was viewed by his father-in-law as the judicial branch overstepping its powers by intruding into the legislative arena.
Sen. Baker had campaigned in support of the Baker v. Carr decision. He had seen how the rural dominated Tennessee General Assembly had restricted the political power of African Americans as well as Republicans in the Memphis area. He joined with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and together they prevailed. Fifteen years later, as Senate Majority Leader, Baker engineered passage of a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Contemporary events and people shape opinions that turn into actions. That was true yesterday and it is true today as well. His friendship with Ben Hooks and his wife, Frances, shaped his views and support of civil rights. His happenstance to be en route to the airport in Washington on the day of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial provided this young lawyer an opportunity to witness change.
Dr. Hooks from West Tennessee was an attorney, judge, and a leader of the NAACP. He was the state’s first black criminal court judge, and Sen. Baker said, “He was a man of stature, courage, and determination. He (Hooks) encouraged me to support the open housing bill in 1967 and I did. Later, the Nixon administration was looking for a commissioner for the FCC and I recommended Ben. He became the first black commissioner on the FCC.”
The relationship extended into a request from the new Senate Majority Leader (Baker) to the President, Ronald Reagan. The newly elected president had declined an invitation to speak at the NAACP. Sen. Baker, who was guiding the president’s economic and tax reform packages in the Senate, made one request in 1981: he wanted the President to address the NAACP convention, where his friend Ben Hooks was the executive director.
The President’s team was not supportive, expecting that President Reagan would receive a lukewarm reception. Sen. Baker’s response to the President – it meant more to be there, signaling that he was the President of all the people, and accept the fact that it would not be a warm reception. The response was modest but the willingness to appear was what mattered. John Seigenthaler, the late publisher of the Tennessean, recalled that “Howard Baker campaigned in black churches not because he thought he would receive a vote but that he would be representative of all people in Tennessee.”
In 1983 as the Senate majority leader supporting the national holiday for Dr. King, Sen. Baker remembered an afternoon in a taxicab driving past a massive outpouring of support for a man “speaking of his dream.” Two decades later as he shared the experience with his Senate colleagues, he said a holiday for Dr. King should not be viewed as a monument to his speech or even his death. “We owe this special recognition to Black Americans, who have suffered so much, contributed so much, and with whom we can all celebrate the redemption of America’s first and foremost promise of liberty and justice for all.”
The United States is a vast country, reflecting a wide range of ethnic, religious, racial, geographical, and economic interests. These characteristics exist in his home state of Tennessee. Without civility, without a degree of tolerance for our differences, and without a decent respect for the institutions they serve and the values they share, Americans cannot govern themselves.
Sen. Baker would have said: Black Lives Matter. He would then have gone about listening to a diversity of voices, gathering a broad of opinions and ideas, and engaging in a wide-ranging and often noisy dialogue. From this mixing bowl filled with a cacophony of words, the hope would be for policies that harbored meaningful changes that would stand with time.
His approach remains a model for Americans and lawmakers – to come together with civility in a search for meaningful changes. But time, patience, a willingness to suffer setbacks and criticism accompany the goal to succeed. This is the character that underlies the word – civility.
As he closed out his political career, Sen. Baker withheld comment on his future except to quote the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “God is not through with me yet.”